A Pint of Plain for the History Thread

In 1759, a wealthy young brewer named Arthur Guinness used his inheritance to take out a 9000-year lease, at £45 a year, on an old brewery at St James’s Gate, on the western edge of Dublin city. It was, of course, a roaring success. By the 1830s it would be the biggest brewery in Ireland, and by the 1880s the biggest in the world, moving 1.2 million barrels of stout every year. This is not the story of the stout, though. Rather, it’s the story of how the porter was transported.

A map of the St James’s Gate rail network. You can also see the brewery’s canal connection. The canal spur is now filled in and a stretch used for Dublin’s Luas tram. The old canal harbour is now a building site.

In 1873, the Guinness Brewery made its biggest expansion when the company bought the land between the brewery and the River Liffey. This meant the brewery now had direct access to the river (and from there to the docks via barge) and to the national railway network via Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston), barely five hundred meters west. There was a problem, though. The slope of the land down to the river meant the brewery now had “upper” and “lower” level separated by James’s Street, a public road, and about fifty feet in elevation. The increased size of the site also meant the end of the horse and cart system within the brewery – horses simply couldn’t haul the bulk quantities of ingredients and waste anymore. The obvious solution was to construct a railway.

Hops and Malt, engines 2 and 3. They’re rather adorable, but were difficult to keep running.

Most of Guinness’ internal railway system was laid between 1873 and 1877 under the supervision of an engineer named Samuel Geoghegan. Geoghegan had spent his early career building railways in Turkey, bridges in India and locomotives in Britain. He had joined the company’s engineering staff in 1872 and within three years had become Head Engineer. (It may or may not have been coincidence that his brother William was also the Chief Brewer.) Nevertheless Geoghegan threw himself into the task of building a railway that could work within the quirks and tight confines of the brewery, with fantastic success.

The first problem was the height difference between the two halves of the brewery. The first solution was a hydraulic lift, but since it could only move a single wagon at a time, it was abandoned after about a year in favour of Geoghegan’s far more ambitious plan – a tunnel. Inspired by the railway spirals of the Alps, Geoghegan built a spiral tunnel under James’s Street. Trains entered the tunnel by the engine sheds on the upper level, then did two-and-a-half revolutions down the spiral, crossed the street and emerged again, 35ft lower. A simple signal system was even installed, a pair of interlocked signals at either end. The driver set the signal by hand as he passed, which would indicate an approaching train at the other end of the tunnel.

On the left is the spiral tunnel entrance, on the right the pedestrian tunnel.

The next problem was motive power. The first five locomotives were bought from British locomotive designers and dogged by maintenance problems thanks to the dirty conditions of the brewery yards. In 1882, Geoghegan once again decided a more bespoke solution was in order, and designed his own locomotive, one of the strangest-looking industrial steam locomotives ever built. Essentially, it’s a standard steam engine turned upside down, and all encased in a solid boxy frame. The cylinders (which drive the wheels) are mounted on top of the boiler instead of underneath it, and drive the wheels vertically. This meant the motion could be serviced and kept clean very easily. And they were strong for their size, too, capable of pulling a 75 ton train on the level, or pulling 18 tons up the 1-in-40 gradient of the tunnel. Eventually, Guinness had eighteen of Geoghegan’s little locomotives in service.

Geoghegan locomotive No. 13, at the Talyllyn museum in Wales.

Geoghegan also found an ingenious solution to another problem. The brewery had a short stretch of regular broad-gauge line that connected to the national rail network at Kingsbridge station. (Thanks to a quirk of history, Ireland uses 5’3” “broad gauge” rails, not the 4′ ​8 12” standard gauge used throughout most of the world.) Faced with the expense of buying a separate locomotive just for use on that short stretch of line, he designed the “haulage wagons” instead. The brewery locomotives were simply lifted and dropped into these broad-gauge frames, where they ran on a set of internal rollers connected to the outside wheels with gears. There were no brackets, screws, bolts or clamps. With just gravity and a little bit of sand for traction, the Geoghegan engines could merrily shunt trains of Guinness kegs to the Kingsbridge good yard. The system continued even after they bought a regular locomotive for the mainline connection in 1921, and to my knowledge, nothing quite like it has ever been done elsewhere.

A Geoghegan engine sitting in its haulage wagon.

By the 1940s, however, the steam fleet was becoming increasingly hard to maintain and the gradual phasing-out began, replaced by Planet diesel engines. Since the diesels couldn’t be used in the haulage wagons, the last two Geoghegan engines, numbers 23 and 24, made it all the way to 1957 before steam power left Guinness for good. The Planets would never enjoy the long career of their older cousins, as by 1975, the Guinness railway network was gone entirely, with the locomotives and the river barges replaced by lorries.

The Guinness yards in their heyday.

A number of the Guinness engines survive today in preservation. Geoghegan No. 17 and Planet No. 47 both feature in the Guinness Storehouse tourist museum at St James’s Gate. The spiral rail tunnel is said to be inaccessible now, apparently much of it has been demolished or converted for pipes and electrical infrastructure. Its neighbouring pedestrian tunnel is still in use by brewery staff. And fragments of the tracks can still be found running down the narrow streets surrounding the brewery. Now often ending in the middle of the street, or making turns into former gateways that are now just blank walls, they’re a poignant reminder of the days when the porter was moved by men and steam power.

Part of the remaining track, just outside the Guinness Storehouse. Though Guinness is still made on-site, these days much of the older brewery buildings are either derelict or a tourist attraction.